February 27, 2024 // Perspective

A Eucharistic Word: Viaticum, Food for the Journey

The days of the COVID-19 lockdown were a great opportunity to show love for those around us. And that was particularly true in the face of so much suffering and so many difficulties we encountered.

Like so many others, my family had its share of crosses to share at that time. My grandpa faced death with bladder cancer, spending almost a year at home in hospice care. My grandma began her own Calvary of sorts as she carried
the cross of rapid cognitive and physical deterioration from Alzheimer’s disease. The circumstances of her situation made taking up residence at a care home necessary, made worse by the lockdowns and the distance we had to keep from her and those with whom she lived. My grandparents certainly carried great crosses from 2020-22, as did so many in the world. And for those of us around them, it was a gift to help carry those crosses.

For me, it was a special privilege and joy to help them carry their crosses by bringing them the Eucharist in their infirmity. Given the inability for clergy to enter homes and institutions for regular distribution of the sacrament, I made provisions with proper authorities to ensure my grandparents would not entirely do without holy Communion as they journeyed to death. Those occasions were certainly an opportunity for them to be strengthened and nourished by the sacrament’s graces. They were a gift for me, too, as those surrounding the sick and dying are recipients of the Church’s care and ministry as well.

“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day,” Christ said (Jn 6:54). Given the centrality of that reality for the sick and dying, the Church has long prioritized
the distribution of holy Communion for them. Family and friends should take special care to ensure the local parish or institution’s pastoral care staff is alerted to this purpose. If nothing else, one’s pastor can be asked to permit the family to bring holy Communion to their loved one.

Each of us will receive holy Communion one last time. In the course of sickness and death, the final reception of holy Communion before death is called viaticum, which means “food for the journey.” Viaticum unites the dying person intimately with Christ in his or her passover from death to life. In ordinary circumstances, this should be arranged with attentiveness to the person’s condition when there is at least a little time to spare. When it can be difficult for the dying person to receive holy Communion, it is a consolation to remember that the fruits of the last Communion we’ve received do not have an expiration date and remain living, effective, and fruitful still. A spiritual communion could be recited with or for the dying person. Given its importance, greatest care should be taken that family and friends don’t wait too long to request viaticum.

Even amid my grandma’s own cognitive decline, it always amazed me to see how hardwired the faith remained internally. Even as receiving holy Communion became difficult for her at the end, there were glimmers of her awareness that shone through the darkness of her illness, such as when she instinctively made the Sign of the Cross before receiving the sacrament or would respond “Amen” unprompted.

As I had the gift of witnessing that, it was hard not to grow in awe of our faith and the deep-rooted reality for believers that we cherish and desire the life Christ offers us in His body and blood. And He brings His grace to those who cling to that hope as they make their final push carrying His cross. And I found that grace came to those of us, who, like Mary, Simon, or Veronica, were privileged to help them along the way.

Michael R. Heinlein is author of “Glorifying Christ: The Life of Cardinal Francis E. George, O.M.I.” and a promised member of the Association of Pauline Cooperators.

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